The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charleston’s apology for slavery is just empty symbolism

Without doing anything to address the legacy of racism, regrets don't mean anything.

Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. (Alex Holt for The Washington Post)

The city of Charleston, S.C.’s two-page apology for enslaving black people and terrorizing and treating them as second-class citizens during Jim Crow ought to be crumbled up and tossed into the trash.

Supporters have cheered the city council’s resolution and called it an important step toward racial healing. On social media, some people are saying there should be no apology for slavery because no one alive today should be held responsible for those past wrongs. Meanwhile, others are saying white Southerners should be praised for finally acknowledging more than 150 years since Emancipation that slavery and overt racial discrimination of the past was wrong.

But Charleston shouldn’t get any credit for its belated regrets over enslaving, raping, terrorizing, lynching and breaking up the families of its black citizens’ ancestors. American racism is grounded on centuries of meticulous indulgence, practice, research, government policies, premeditated intent, routine behavior, tunnel vision and cognitive dissonance. The legacy of those centuries of racist brutality still infects every facet of life in the city, and until white supremacy is truly dismantled, apologies such as this one will be nothing but empty gestures.

Eight months ago, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture released an 80-page racial disparities report that I wrote. The report revealed that Charleston and its surrounding county is home to some of the most pervasive racial disparities in the country. The numbers demonstrate the furtiveness and perniciousness of white supremacy that gets reproduced in Charleston’s halls of political power, classrooms, board meetings, health-care establishments, real estate and labor practices, policing, eco-hazards, food access, low-wage job market, and dismantling of unions, and through a generation of young people growing up in neighborhoods where they feel hopeless and demonized.

There’s no cost to white people who call 911 about black people. There should be.

Rapid development and increasing property taxes have reduced the size of downtown Charleston’s black communities and eroded black culture over the past 30 years. This storied port city of over 130,000 people is one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the South. Poor black people have been displaced from their traditional neighborhoods to make way for new residents, mostly white and wealthier. Meanwhile, the nearby Gullah people have lost untold acres to hoggish developers. Over the past two decades, Charleston has witnessed significant public and private investments, soaring housing prices, and demographic changes that have left low-income residents with little refuge.

This rapid change has been ruthless and unapologetic, and it has yielded what many black residents told me they believe to be a racist and deliberate concentrated impoverishment of the region’s black communities by city planners, politicians, business leaders, developers and probably some of the same folks patting themselves on the back for issuing a hollow apology for slavery.

The economic gulf between black and white residents that was present in Charleston during the civil rights era has not disappeared. In 2015, the median income for white families was more than double that of black families, $64,553 for whites compared with $29,799 for blacks. The black unemployment rate remains more than double the white unemployment rate, 8.5 percent for blacks compared with 3 percent for whites. Fifty-six percent of the black population has low or no access to healthy foods. Forty-two percent of black children under age 18 are living below the poverty line, compared with 11 percent of white children.

White women make up the majority of the teaching staff in the Charleston County School District. Of the district’s 3,312 teachers, 71 percent are white women and 14 percent are white men, compared with 12 percent black women and less than 1 percent black men. Black students make up more than 40 percent of the district’s school population (though they represent 83 percent of students given suspensions, which may not be unrelated to the demographic mismatch).

Arming teachers would put black and Latino kids in danger

The Charleston County School District is facing federal lawsuits for patterns of discrimination against black employees and students. Hundreds of students, most of them black, have been funneled from schools into prisons for regular adolescent behaviors.

Low-income black neighborhoods are disproportionately exposed to toxic environmental hazards that include noxious incinerators, landfills, Superfund sites, Toxic Release Inventory facilities, and sewer and water treatment plants. These hazardous-waste sites are predominantly located in black communities. Data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control show how the disproportionate burden of exposure to these harmful conditions has resulted in adverse health outcomes that include birth defects, diabetes, urinary tract disorders, eczema, anemia, cancer, stroke, and speech and hearing difficulties in young children. These stressors, coupled with inadequate health-promoting infrastructure (supermarkets, parks, open spaces, medical facilities), reduce the community’s ability to defend itself against the differential burden and exposure to eco-hazards.

There is also a hidden holocaust of black infants across the county dying annually at a rate of more than five times that of white infants. The infant mortality rate for whites stands at less than 2 percent, compared with a little more than 11 percent for blacks.

Black people are more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, shocked by stun guns and incarcerated by police in the Charleston area. The North Charleston Police Department has a documented record of misconduct including incidents of excessive force. Black residents have a disproportionately higher share of citizen complaints against police, filing 60 percent of complaints even though they make up only 47 percent of the North Charleston population. White residents filed 33 percent of citizen complaints, compared with their estimated population of 41 percent. Millions of dollars in civil rights settlements have been paid to victims of police brutality.

We don’t need ‘racial unity.’ We need whites to stop being racist.

The city council’s resolution pledges that officials will work with businesses and organizations to achieve racial equality. More than $25 million has been invested in a forthcoming African American museum, now that actual black people have been almost completely pushed out of Charleston’s historic core. Since the release of our report, there’s been a lot of lip service but no measurable action on our very specific policy recommendations to reverse centuries-old systems of power that have perpetually prevented most black residents from attaining the wealth and opportunities of their white counterparts, despite the fact that their enslaved ancestors built the city.

Our report recommended that the city and county develop a racial-equity framework for all legislation and regulations that may have a disparate impact on low-income or communities of color. To combat chronic poverty, we recommended that officials address barriers to work, including expensive and unreliable transportation systems and unaffordable child care; deploy public awareness campaigns to educate the public about predatory lending practices that target low-income people; audit and address the hiring practices to dismantle systemic barriers to hiring qualified black candidates; establish summer employment programs for low-income teens; reform school disciplinary procedures and diversify the teaching and administrative staff, and expand de-escalation training for all levels of law enforcement officers and eliminate policies and practices that result in disproportionate arrests of people of color. We also recommended that city officials work to preserve and build more affordable housing and enact laws that prevent involuntary displacement of tenants from low-income black neighborhoods.

Charleston residents and activists have told me they’re frustrated with the foot-dragging on these recommendations. Now Charleston is one of the cities that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson is targeting for rent increases on low-income households who get federal housing assistance. This could mean homelessness for thousands of residents.

Only white people can save themselves from racism and white supremacy

An apology for slavery won’t pay the rent. It won’t improve health outcomes, prevent discriminatory practices in education and employment, keep black people from getting brutalized or killed by cops, or get rid of the eco-hazards. An apology won’t change the day-to-day realities of trauma and stress strangling black lives.

Apologies are symbolic. They ease guilt on the part of the people who have benefited from white supremacy every day of their lives. White Charleston, and America writ large, don’t want to own this nation’s ugly racist past or examine all the ways that systemic racism still gives them advantages over black people. Racial justice is not a zero-sum game. White communities do not have to be deprived of rights and resources to equalize communities of color.

White Americans’ determined failure to recognize the origins of systemic racism and its historical evolution is exhausting. Apologizing without plans for restorative justice is psychic therapy for whites. Black Americans should think better of ourselves and demand more — because this nation has clearly shown that it is not genuinely dedicated to dismantling white supremacy.

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